Storage luminaries wrestle with industry chaos

Two things appear certain in the chaotic storage world. Virtualization is over-hyped and networking and storage technologies are headed for an inevitable, messy convergence.

These issues took centre stage at Storage Decisions 2001 conference held last month as storage executives gathered to ponder the industry’s future and find solutions to common bugbears, including the lack of vendor interoperability.

Nick Allen, Gartner Group’s vice-president and research director, opened his morning keynote arguing that as networking and storage technologies become intertwined it will cause organizational turmoil within the enterprise as managers from the previously separate fields merge roles. “Most networking people don’t realize this and most storage people don’t realize this,” he said.

The outcome could be what Allen describes as the Storage Engineer, a person whose role reflects what many in the storage industry believe: If storage touches every part of the organization’s IT infrastructure, so should its manager.

Fueling the rise of this role is the concept that a technology familiar to network managers, Gigabit Ethernet, is pushing down from the network layer as an emerging standard for transporting data between the server and storage devices.

As a result, Allen echoed the sentiment of executives that Ethernet, or IP networks, could displace the current favorite used in popular architectures such as SANs, while others believe the iSCSI protocol will forge a greater role.

“Architecturally, fibre channel and iSCSI are both the same; it’s more about how you manage the wiring,” said Mark Farley, author of a storage industry bible Building Storage Networks.

“Our whole strategy is to think about storage as a separately managed piece of the infrastructure,” said Dan Warmenhoven, CEO at Network Appliance, one executive who believes storage is the layer that sits above the network.

Network Appliance, in Sunnyvale, Calif., has adopted the position that its bread and butter technology, NAS (network attached storage), will merge with SANs. Fibre channel is a “transitional technology” that would “give way” to high-speed Ethernet, Warmenhoven said.

These issues are not trivial for end-users grappling with significant investments in data storage equipment, have little money left for management solutions, and are now eager to understand the road map of what appears to be so many competing, interoperable vendor road maps.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have multi-vendor environments,” commented one conference attendee, Bruce Jacobs, director of data center operations at ChoicePoint Direct in Peoria, Ill. The biggest challenge of managing a complex storage environment remains finding common standards and vendor interoperability, he said.

The current hot button solution to the mess is virtualization, a concept that’s been around since early IBM mainframe days. Companies such as Network Appliance Inc., EMC Corp., and IBM Corp. are pushing the focus toward managing data in a centrally managed storage pool, regardless of data transport protocol or vendor device.

But the term itself is not clearly understood and is open to different interpretations. “What does it mean and which method is going to rule?” commented Jacobs.

Gartner’s Allen described virtualization as a technique, not a product, while Warmenhoven said its primary objective is to take physical storage from any vendor, combine and re-segment it into logical volumes. The “Holy Grail” so to speak, is that users have a single view of their total storage pool, he explained.

The complexities mean that the new concept of storage area management will evolve to meet the limitations seen in the “hodge-podge” management of widely deployed SAN technologies, Allen said.

The concept of a SAM is to manage the relationship between applications, their storage, and the interconnecting technologies in between, he explained.

Allen said that as it stands, there are too many technical steps involved in retrieving data from a disk to the application and data on the disk.

“In most cases, storage managers are trying to [manage storage domains] on a manual basis. Spreadsheets won’t do for managing IP addresses in a global company,” he said. “Users think in terms of applications; the best things you vendors in the audience can do is make them application-centric.”

Meanwhile, organizers reported the decision to go ahead with the conference was made after research revealed the majority of vendors and registered attendees were still committed to coming despite the recent tragedies in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. About 360 people are in attendance, many wearing symbols of national support. Storage Decisions 2001 continues through Friday.